I’ve wanted to write about this for a long time but haven’t because somebody will invariably misinterpret what I’m saying and stomp me into a bloody pulp. If you’re new to these parts, know I have a life long commitment to social causes so read carefully.
This post could be partially summarized by this line Burt Reynolds’ character said in the movie Paternity:
I want to have a son so I can be there when he learns about gravity.
I thought that was one of the stupidest lines I’ve ever heard in a movie. And it’s a stupid reason to start a business.
In the broadest of strokes, based on primary motivation (mission) there’s three kinds of designers destined to fail. These are people who are:
- Style Saints: Feel their core mission is to save consumers who dress badly
- Fit Saints: Ditto except the primary mission is fit related (plus sizes etc)
- Social Saints: Feel their primary mission is to create jobs or <insert social cause here>
Of them all, Style Saints are a lost cause mostly because dressing poorly is subjective and a matter of personal preference. You can’t swoop in like Superman to save people with style. They won’t care. To them, you’re a for profit enterprise who wants their money and not everyone will agree your taste is that great anyway. Very few designers think their stuff is ugly yet ugly abounds. Besides, people who dress poorly may not agree they dress poorly or they may not care. Or, they may not have any money so they won’t be buying your clothes anyway. Pick another way to save the world or better yet, dispense with this delusion and make cool stuff that some people will want to buy.
I think the worst style saint I found recently was this guy who said he wanted to create a brand so that sports inspired people could have their own identity. He thought they’d believe they had their own identity by wearing his? Does he really believe this? [Note my cynicism, expect the same from other consumers]. Why does everyone need an identity these days anyway? Call me crazy but identity is developed through character, one’s course is formed by action; it’s not something you wash and wear.
Fit Saints can be closely related to style saints if they make similar subjective judgments. Many people just don’t know that much about fit -or care. Or, they don’t want to pay. But most of all, the consumer is not going to be favorably predisposed to your altruistic fit mission because they won’t know of it. Some might but most won’t. No, all they’re going to know is whether your stuff fits them and whether it’s a good value. Particularly in plus sizes, it is very difficult to fit the gamut of consumers. If anything, consumers who fall outside your fitting profile will criticize you because your clothes don’t fit them. And even if they know you say you’re doing this out of altruism, their attitude is likely to be one of cynicism. That if you really cared, you’d fit them so they’ll just think you’re in it for the money. So, you may as well dispense with formality and do it for that reason.
I think it is great to be inspired by fitting problems to launch a line because it represents an opportunity to profit. By all means, go for it but swooping in with your cape to save consumers from other bad products shouldn’t be your primary reason for starting a business. Rather, you should be glad of the existence of bad products because those represent competitive advantage.
Social Saints and altruism in manufacturing rarely works. If your primary motivation to do this is intended as a benevolent gesture to employ people, employees (and customers) often don’t care either. In the case of employees, you’re “the man”, squeezing them to line your own pockets. In the case of contractors, parroting the employment mantra -while negotiating a lower price- induces cynicism because they see how wasteful one is. There are a few not for profit sewing operations around, I know of two within 250 miles of me. One will be closing soon because the diocese funding it has withdrawn their support because the operation has generated nothing but red ink for 16 years. The other regularly holds what amounts to “fundraisers” in the form of civil protests against sweat shops to solicit public support when they don’t even make a pretense of sewing anymore. In the case of the latter; I tried to give them business but they didn’t want to sew anything more complex than tote bags with strap webbing handles. Both cases are really tragic because neither needed to close and we really needed the contract services. If they had been profit minded, they would have looked more closely at their decision making based on quality of services rather than just pronouncing it quality because they kept people on the payroll. I have never seen so many under utilized workers sitting around in my life. It’s depressing.
This does not mean one cannot combine secondary motivations such as employing people and providing niche products to a specialized market but profiteers run their businesses better. Lots better. I trust a profiteer a lot more than anyone else because their motivation is clear; anyone else is just murky. If one’s judgment is suspect by keeping someone who is highly incompetent and drags it all down because they don’t want to deprive the person of a job, it amounts to very bad morale. Other employees will resent the freeloaders who haven’t bought into the mission. One bad apple does spoil the barrel.
And this is also not to say that consumers don’t make choices based on a company’s mission. Believe me, I prefer to buy artisan goods every single time and am pleased to pay the premium for it. But the goods must represent a semblance of value or nobody is going to buy it. Or not enough will buy it. The point is, if profit is your central focus, this necessarily means that your primary goal is to provide value to the customer. Do that well and you’ll have enough gravy to fund your social causes and make customers glad they’re doing business with you. If you have social goals, the best thing to do is to make money that you can then give away, spend on social priorities or to make your employees work place and lives a little better.
You should be as profit minded as your employees; they’re not coming to work because the clothes are cool. They’re coming for the cash.